As a kid growing up in Georgia, my school used to take field trips every year to the Savannah Science Museum. I loved it! We’d run through a two-story replica of the human heart, peer into terrariums of exotic snakes, and lift massive weights using nothing but our own strength (and a conveniently placed series of pulleys). But my favorite part was the planetarium. Sitting in that round theater, seat reclined, staring up at the domed ceiling, I would be utterly spellbound. Sunrise and sunset, summer and winter, the constellations circling across the night sky—it was magic to my adolescent brain.
The designers of the planetarium knew the best way to simulate the movement of a spherical planet in 3D space was to project lights up onto a dome. Of course, I knew the real sky wasn’t actually a solid dome—after all, I was a twentieth-century kid born in the post-Apollo world.
But what about people in the pre-NASA days? Or the pre-Copernican days? Or in biblical times? Did they actually believe that the sky was a solid dome—or in the language of the KJV, a “firmament”? And is this what the Bible teaches?
I’ll reveal a simple answer now, then provide some complexity: interpreters don’t agree on the questions I’ve raised, and this explains why English Bibles are themselves divided on how “firmament” should be understood. The Hebrew term is raqia’ (rah-KEE-ah, רָקִיעַ), and it is usually translated in one of two ways—either “firmament/dome/vault” or, “expanse/sky/heavens.”
How we interpret this challenging word in Genesis 1 will depend on how we think the biblical authors pictured the universe, as well as on our hermeneutical presuppositions.
Of course, Israel didn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. They were a people of the ancient Near East (ANE), and Scripture is filled with echoes of their neighbors’ stories and imagery—though these stories and imagery are theologically transformed by the biblical writers.1 So when considering how the Hebrews understood rāqîaʿ, it’s helpful to be aware of their neighbors’ cosmologies.
It’s been said that history begins at Sumer,2 and while it’s impossible to piece together an in-depth cosmology for the Sumerians, it seems that they believed that Enlil, the air god, had separated heaven and earth from the primeval waters before organizing the rest of the universe. The Sumerians acknowledged that rain itself came from clouds—Enlil tasked his brother Ishkur with overseeing that process;3 so the idea of a primeval sea and a normal water cycle weren’t mutually exclusive. But this concept of a cosmic, watery chaos being restrained by the heavens would remain a constant throughout the ANE, as we see in the Babylonian Enuma Elish’s account of Marduk (the chief warrior god) battling the watery chaos serpent, Tiamat. After Marduk bashed in Tiamat’s skull
with his merciless mace …
He split her in two, like a fish for drying.
Half of her he set up and made as a cover, heaven.4
Marduk refers to Tiamat’s heavenly half-corpse as the “firmament, whose grounding I made firm.” He then fashions the other half of her carcass into the earth, upon which he will institute kingship, worship, and ultimately Babylon itself.
Similarly, in the Ugaritic Baʿlu Myth, after Baal kills and dismembers Yamm (god of the waters),5 his father El allows him to build a palace in the heavens into which the craftsman god Kothar installs a “window” so that Baal can pour out the rain—the chief source of irrigation in Canaan, as they had no major river like the Tigris, Euphrates, or Nile.
In Egypt, where rainfall was less important for irrigation thanks to the Nile’s annual flooding, the Egyptian word for “firmament” literally meant “bronze/metal”; it described “the ‘heavenly shell,’ i.e., ‘the shell of primal ice that emerged from the primal flood at the dawn of creation.’”6 However, in other accounts the sky was depicted as both the “heavenly sea” and the body of the sky goddess Nut, across which the sun god would sail his heavenly barge each day before descending into the underworld to repeat the process all over again.7
Lastly, while the Greeks spoke of heaven as the abode of the gods and the righteous dead, they also pictured it as “a multitiered system of concentric spheres.”8 And some scholars9 suggest that this Hellenistic conception is what led the Septuagint (LXX) translators to render rāqîaʿ in all but one instance as στερέωμα (stereoma), “firmness”—which the Vulgate would later translate using the Latin equivalent firmamentum.
The idea of the heavens being a series of transparent, crystalline, concentric spheres in which the sun, moon, planets, and stars were embedded would remain the dominant cosmological view throughout Western civilization until the age of modern astronomy.10
Biblical evidence for the meaning of rāqîaʿ
With this rather brisk tour of ancient cosmology in mind, we can already better discern how biblical audiences may have conceived of the heavens. But some important questions immediately arise: Were the biblical authors embracing the (erroneous) cosmology of all other pre-scientific peoples11 or merely using “phenomenological language”—i.e., describing something simply as it appears to a normal human observer?12
What did the Spirit, speaking by the words of Scripture, intend to communicate by using the Hebrew word rāqîaʿ?
As a noun, rāqîaʿ is found in only five biblical passages: the creation account of Genesis 1, Ezekiel’s vision of God on his chariot throne (Ezek 1 & 10); Psalms 19 and 150; and Daniel 12. These read as follows in the NIV:13
And God said, “Let there be a vault (rāqîaʿ) between the waters to separate water from water.” (Gen 1:6)
Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked something like a vault (rāqîaʿ), sparkling like crystal, and awesome. (Ezek 1:22)
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies (rāqîaʿ) proclaim the work of his hands. (Ps 19:1)
Praise the Lord.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens (rāqîaʿ). (Ps 150:1)
Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens (rāqîaʿ),
and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. (Dan 12:3)
Modern translations vary widely in how they render rāqîaʿ, with the KJV and NRSV being the most “solid” and the ESV, CSB, and JPS being the most “atmospheric”:
|Ezekiel 1 & 10
|expanse of the heavens
|expanse of sky
With such variation, it’s natural to ask, “Okay, but what does the Hebrew word literally mean?!”
Etymological evidence for the meaning of rāqîaʿ
Well, we have to remember that translation is as much an art as a science: definitions of biblical words are determined by usage more than anything else. Since rāqîaʿ is never actually defined in Scripture, and since we don’t have an ancient Hebrew dictionary, we have to look for clues in the contexts in which it is used. Since those contexts are so few and the clues are so scanty, we are free, too, to look to etymological clues, such as the word’s verbal root. And while there is some debate over which specific root rāqîaʿ comes from, the consensus among Hebrew linguists seems to be RQ’ (רקע), which means “to stamp/hammer/spread out.” Examples can be found in:
- The Priestly Ephod is made with “hammered” gold sheets in Exodus 39.
- The censers Korah’s rebellious group used were “hammered” into sheets to overlay the Tabernacle altar in Numbers 16:38–39.
- David sings of how he “stamped down” his enemies in 2 Samuel 22:43.
- Isaiah describes idols as being of “hammered” metal in Isaiah 40:19.
- God is said to have “spread out” the earth in Isaiah 42:5.
- God is said to have “spread out” the sky in Job 37:8.
So, based on its verbal root, the most general meaning of rāqîaʿ is “something that has been flattened (through trampling or hammering) or spread out.”
As mentioned above, the LXX translated our Hebrew word as stereoma (“firmness”) in every instance except Daniel 12. There they used the more generic term for “heaven,” ouranos. But while these lexical choices did indeed coincide with Hellenistic cosmology, all pre-scientific peoples envisioned the sky as a solid dome or vault—whether metallic or crystalline.14 In fact, this “firmness” is most evident in Ezekiel’s vision, where the rāqîaʿ is some type of structure upon which God’s throne rests. So we can’t say that the concept of a solid firmament originated from Greek thought,15 though it was certainly later shaped by it. In fact, the Talmudic rabbis posited a full seven different firmaments whose respective thicknesses were theorized to be anywhere from two or three finger-breadths to the thickness of the entire earth—each located a journey of five hundred years apart from the other!16 So it’s no exaggeration to say the rāqîaʿ has been pondered for millennia. That doesn’t mean that we can’t draw some tentative conclusions about the term’s meaning; it just means we should hold such conclusions with loose hands.
2 major views on the meaning of rāqîaʿ
When all the lexical and historical data are surveyed, we basically end up with two views on how to translate rāqîaʿ, plus two different interpretive approaches within each.
1. The solid dome view
In the first major view, rāqîaʿ denotes an actual, solid, physical dome and should be translated as such—that is, with a word like “firmament” or “vault.” Interpreters who argue that the rāqîaʿ is a solid structure usually take one of two approaches.
- Some who take the first view openly reject biblical cosmology. They argue that the biblical authors truly believed the sky to be a solid dome and, like their ANE neighbors, they simply got it wrong. Therefore, while Scripture does intend to teach that the sky is a literal solid dome, proponents of this view see this as simply another example of ancient ignorance resulting in error and can be dismissed as such. For evangelicals, this is obviously not a viable interpretive option.
- Others who take the first view argue that we must make a distinction between how the ancients pictured the universe and how Scripture co-opts that imagery for rhetorical purposes without actually endorsing it at the level of material reality. Proponents of this view see rāqîaʿ as literary/theological language that was never intended to be a technical description of the physical universe. Those who take this approach see no need to try to reconcile a solid sky with modern astrophysics. Scripture is simply using common ancient imagery to communicate a theological—not a scientific—message.
2. The empty space view
In the second major view, rāqîaʿ is a phenomenological description of the atmosphere and/or space and should be translated as such—that is, with a word like “expanse” or “sky.” Those who hold this view see “spread out” as the primary meaning of rāqîaʿ, and they tend to take one of two approaches:
- Some who take the second view argue that we must interpret Scripture in a way that “concords” with modern science. Apparent conflict between the two, they say, comes from over-literalization of biblical language. Thus, rāqîaʿ is simply phenomenological language used to depict the atmosphere and outer space. Like the modern terms “sunset” or “dewfall,” rāqîaʿ is just a natural way of describing how the heavens appear to human observers (i.e., a clear blue dome across which the heavenly bodies move and from which the “waters above” fall, through heavenly “windows”/“floodgates”).17 In this view, describing the sky as rāqîaʿ is no more “erroneous” than a modern speaker talking about a beautiful “sunrise.” God actually inspired such imagery in a way that would prefigure what modern science would only later come to realize about the atmosphere, solar system, and the fabric of spacetime itself.18
- Others who take this latter view argue that we should interpret rāqîaʿ simply as something “spread out” or ”expansive.” The word is used as a non-literal, artistic description of the sky or the heavens in general. Just as the ancients “spread out” their tents over their heads, so too has God “spread out” the heavens above the earth. This approach largely agrees with view 1b above in that both interpret rāqîaʿ as metaphorical rather than literal (or even phenomenological) language. The disagreement is over whether it intends to describe something solid or something immaterial.
Frameworks we bring to the text
The interpretive options I’ve laid out here are a simplified summary; there are obviously areas of overlap among each of the above approaches. Which of these approaches we find most persuasive will ultimately depend on our respective hermeneutical and theological outlooks. But any approach we adopt should take the following issues into consideration.
Worldviews and world pictures
First, we have to recall the difference between a “worldview” and a “world picture.” The term worldview “refers to the cluster of beliefs a person holds about the most significant issues of life, such as God, the cosmos, knowledge, values, humanity, and history.”19 Our worldview forms our “big picture, a general outlook, or a grand perspective on life and the world.”20
Our world picture, on the other hand, is “what one imagines to be the shape of the world and the things in it, such as how large the earth is, what shape it has, where the land leaves off and the sea begins, what is under the ground and over the sky, and so on.”21 Basically, our world picture is how we see the physical world and our worldview is how we see the metaphysical world.
When it comes to interpreting rāqîaʿ, we have to decide whether or not we agree with my friend J. Richard Middleton that “the biblical writers were not teaching this ancient world picture [i.e. ANE cosmology] … , rather, they were using this world picture to communicate a distinctive vision of the meaning of this world.”22
Is it possible for our modern world picture to differ from that of the biblical authors while our theistic worldview remains the same?23 Many would say it’s not only possible, but necessary.
Use of pagan imagery
A second and related issue is the degree to which the biblical authors can utilize common imagery from the pagan world without endorsing it at the worldview level. From rainbows to dragons, Leviathan to Behemoth, suzerainty treaty to Egyptian love poetry, the Hebrew Bible is filled with ANE concepts and forms that had meaning outside of Israel.24 Like Paul appealing to the Athenians’ “unknown god,” are the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures making use of pagan imagery to point their audience back to the God of Israel? How we answer this question will influence how much we see rāqîaʿ serving as “polemical theology.”25
The line between phenomenological and figurative language
The third and last issue we should consider is whether or not a clear line exists between language that is phenomenological and language that is merely non-literal. All phenomenological language is non-literal, but not all non-literal language is phenomenological.
Joel cries out:
A nation has invaded my land,
strong and beyond counting.
Its teeth are the teeth of a lion,
and its fangs are those of a lioness (Joel 1:6 LEB)
Is Joel through this language intending to phenomenologically describe a locust swarm? Or is he speaking metaphorically of an actual national invasion? Are the “fangs” Joel mentions a phenomenological description of locusts—or of enemy swords? Or are they simply a metaphor for something crushing and powerful? Or perhaps all of these at the same time?
Likewise, when the biblical authors speak of things like the rāqîaʿ, the “waters above,” and the “windows of heaven,” are they doing so because it actually looks like there is a primordial blue ocean above their heads from which sometimes water falls, but which is held back by some sort of transparent “expanse”? Or are they simply embracing the common ancient world picture and using it metaphorically? Or perhaps all of these at the same time? The more we consider this question, the more difficult it becomes to provide a succinct answer that other Bible readers will find compelling.
Where I land
I have described the issues thoughtful readers of Scripture must wrestle with when trying to understand the meaning of rāqîaʿ. No doubt interpreters will continue to disagree, parsing out the semantic nuances of the word in different ways. But that’s actually not a bad thing, in my opinion. By listening to different approaches, we are better able see things we may have initially missed as we form our own conclusions.
Now I realize it would be extremely unfulfilling if after leading readers through all these questions, I didn’t offer my own answers, however loosely held they may be. So here is where I land in interpreting rāqîaʿ.
I believe there are two levels of authorship in any biblical text—the human author and the Holy Spirit who inspired them. Most of the time their intentions are the same. But at times, I do believe prophets can speak of more than what they are consciously aware. Therefore, I think we should not in principle rule out some level of concordism between the ancient text and modern scientific discoveries. However, we must also not assume that Scripture always intends to speak in a way that concords with modern science, because it was indeed written to ancient people in the ancient world in ways they were able to understand and appreciate.
My overall hermeneutic could be described as “semi-concordist.” I do believe that some of the imagery found in Genesis 1 is best interpreted phenomenologically. I don’t think, as some scholars whom I deeply respect have argued, that Genesis has nothing to say regarding the material process of creation,26 but I also think many concordists press the text much further than God intends when trying to resolve seeming conflicts between the biblical imagery and modern science.27 At the same time, I believe Scripture does indeed appropriate ancient pagan imagery in order to speak polemically against pagan worldviews. Genesis 1 does this in numerous ways,28 and I think the rāqîaʿ is another example of such—in addition to being a phenomenological description of what the ancient audience saw when they looked up.
Therefore, I prefer to translate rāqîaʿ as something like “the expansive dome.” I think this rendering best preserves both senses of the root verb, as well as the cosmologically significant aspect that rāqîaʿ seems to possess, not just in its biblical contexts but throughout the ANE. It communicates, to my ears at least, something like the ancient equivalent of a planetarium. And the fact that the word is limited to poetic or visionary passages in Scripture should keep one from interpreting it too literally, regardless of which approach we end up taking.
- Little Lights: The Significance of Light in Genesis
- What Happened on the 7 Days of Creation? (Walkthrough + Video)
- What Are the Christian Views on Creation?
- For numerous examples see the DiscipleDojo YouTube playlist “Background of the Bible.”
- For a demonstration of this seemingly hyperbolic claim, see Kramer’s classic book by that title. The following cosmological details come from ch. 13, “Man’s First Cosmogony and Cosmology.” Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer (New York: Doubleday, 1959).
- “Enki and the World Order” (lines 309–317) in William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger Jr., eds., “Supplements,” in The Context of Scripture (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 346.
- “Enuma Elish” tablets IV–V in Hallo and Younger, Context of Scripture, 398–99.
- Hallo and Younger, Context of Scripture, 249.
- Görg, “רָקִיעַ רָקַע,” TDOT, 13:651.
- “The Book of Nut,” in Hallo and Younger, Context of Scripture, 5.
- D. A. deSilva, DLNTD, s.v. “Heaven, New Heavens,” 439–440.
- J. Barton Payne, “2217 רָקַע,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 862.
- For a summary of how this geocentric model held sway from the time of Aristotle up until the Copernicus, see Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection (Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity, 1986), 23–38.
- For an extensive survey of pre-scientific understandings of the solidity of the sky across nearly all pre-modern societies from around the world, see Paul Seely’s article, “The Firmament and the Water Above,” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991): 227–40. Seely takes the position that “firmament” is the correct translation and that the Hebrew authors believed, like all pre-scientific peoples, that the sky was actually a solid dome holding back the heavenly waters, rather than phenomenological language or purely symbolic imagery.
- An example of this approach can be seen in Hugh Ross, who writes, “God’s “separation” of the water accurately describes the formation of the troposphere, the atmospheric layer just above the ocean where clouds form and humidity resides, as distinct from the stratosphere, mesosphere, and ionosphere lying above.” The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 34.
- Raqia’ appears numerous times in Genesis and Ezekiel; I am just giving one representative example from each passage.
- Again, see Seely, “Firmament and the Water Above,” for numerous examples both ancient and modern.
- As Payne has suggested: “2217,” 862.
- See the fascinating discussions in Gen. Rab. 4:2–6:6, Chag. 12b–13a. It should be noted, however, that these numbers may be symbolic rather than literal.
- Cf. Gen 7:11, 8:2, Isa. 24:18, Mal. 3:10
- For an example of this approach, see Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 27. Ross’ ministry, Reasons to Believe, strongly advocates such an approach in general: reasons.org.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, “Worldview,” Dictionary of Christianity and Science: The Definitive Reference for the Intersection of Christian Faith and Contemporary Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 688.
- Samples, “Worldview,” 688.
- C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 261–62.
- J. Richard Middleton, “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” in John P. Slattery, ed., T&T Clark handbook of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences (London: T&T Clark, 2020), 17.
- For an excellent discussion of this, see ch. 10 in Collins’ Genesis 1:4.
- Again, see this DiscipleDojo playlist on YouTube for numerous examples.
- For a discussion and numerous examples from Egypt and Mesopotamia, see especially John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), and Jeffery Niehaus, God at Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995).
- An example of this argument can be found in John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
- For a more detailed survey of the relationship between Genesis and science, DiscipleDojo’s online course “The Bible & Science: Friends or Foes??” which is freely available at my Disciple Dojo site.
- I discuss a number of them in the DiscipleDojo podcast series “Genesis 1–11: The Primordial Preface.”